At 22 metres (72 feet 6 inches) in diameter, this extraordinary example of Victorian engineering is the largest working waterwheel in the British Isles. It was built in 1854 to pump floodwater from shafts in the Great Laxey Mining Company’s extensive zinc mine.
Mining operations at Laxey began in the late 1700s and continued until the mine was abandoned in 1932. A tour of the wheel and mine tells the story of the families whose lives were irrevocably changed when the first zinc ore was unearthed.
The mines brought work and opportunity, but for the men, women, and children who faced the gruelling conditions of the mines and the long hours on the washing floor, the story was often one of hardship, disaster, and even death.
Great Laxey Mine
The Isle of Man is rich in minerals used in industrial processes, and Glen Mooar Valley is particularly rich in zinc, copper, and galena-lead ore. The first records of lead ore being mined in the valley date from the 1780s.
The Mine—to the Welsh Shaft
Lead ore with a high silver content was mined here from about 1790. At full production, Laxey Great Mine produced more zinc than any other mine in the British Isles. By 1900, the mine was nearly 600 metres deep.
This engine house was built in 1828 to pump water from the mines. Its 26-foot waterwheel was replaced by steam engines not long after the Great Laxey Wheel was constructed, though it remained on stand-by for years to come.
A turbine engine in this machine house, built in 1856, powered a hoist that carried broken-up ore from the mine. The engine, known as a winding engine, wound and unwound wagon-pulling cables on large drums.
The turbine engine in the machine house was driven by water delivered from a stone-encased cistern higher up the glen. Water used at the machine house was collected and sent down the glen to drive the Great Wheel.
Construction of the Wheel
The complex project of building the Laxey Wheel was conceived by Robert Casement. A self-taught engineer, Casement proposed building a massive waterwheel—twice the size of the existing wheel—to drive the pumps that would empty the mine of flood water.
Casement’s solution was practical. Although coal-fired steam engines were driving industry all over England, the Isle of Man had no coal. A water-driven wheel didn’t need any. Casement designed the wheel, the water delivery system, and the pumping machinery.
The wheel’s enormously heavy axle, hub, and cranks were cast in 1850–51 by the Mersey Steel and Iron Company in Liverpool for £1,111 and 3 shillings. These were brought to the site by boat.
The wheel was christened ‘Lady Isabella’ in honour of the wife of the island’s governor, Sir Charles Hope.
The water that drives the wheel travels to it in a closed pipe from a cistern at an elevation higher than the top of the wheel. The vertical pipe in the tower next to the wheel acts as a siphon: water flows up it naturally.
Starting of the Laxey Wheel in 1854 by unknownManx National Heritage
Turning On the Great Wheel of Laxey
The official opening of the Laxey Wheel took place on 27th September 1854, with thousands turning out to witness the first official turning of the wheel. The ceremony was attended by the Island’s Governor and his wife, Lady Isabella Hope, the wheel’s namesake.
Shortly before noon, more than 500 mine workers, dressed in holiday attire and accompanied by musicians, walked up through the village to the wheel led by the mine company’s chairman, George W Dumbell, to join their waiting guests.
Three Legs of Man
The wheel case is emblazoned with the coat of arms of the Isle of Man, a Celtic symbol consisting of three armoured legs radiating from the centre. On the island’s official flag, the triskelion is set on a red background.
The Location of the Wheel
Laxey village lies just below the wheel’s site. For decades, for people of the town and the surrounding district, the wheel was an important symbol of their way of life and their livelihoods.
Even before the mine was abandoned in 1932, the Great Laxey Wheel had become an important tourist destination. Today, over 150 years since its opening, the wheel is the most visited attraction on the Isle of Man.
How the Wheel Works
The Laxey Wheel was designed to drive a set of pumps in the engine shaft 183 metres (600 feet) away. Water fell from the top of the wheel tower into buckets built into the wheel’s rim, causing the wheel to turn.
A crankshaft converted the circular motion of the wheel into horizontal motion, pushing and pulling a series of timber rods that extended to the pumps. At the pumps, the horizontal motion was converted to vertical motion by a component called a T-rocker.
Each of the Laxey Wheel’s 168 buckets can hold 24 gallons of water. The weight of the water drives the wheel forward and down. The estimated energy produced by the wheel’s motion is 185–200 horsepower.
The massive crankshaft—it weighs 2½ tonnes (2,500 KiloGrams)—is attached to the wheel axle in the centre of the wheel. The crankshaft pushes and pulls the timber rods that extend to the pumps.
Direction of Movement
The Laxey Wheel is a pitchback (or backshot) wheel. The water falls into the buckets just before the highest point of the wheel. This results in the wheel turning towards the water tower rather than toward the front of the whole structure.
The Rod Duct
The 200-yard-long rod duct, built on the model of a Roman aqueduct, supported the oscillating rod that linked the wheel to the T-rocker at the head of the pumps.
The rod lay on rollers, which minimized friction as it was drawn back and forth in an oscillating motion by the crankshaft. The footpath running along the bottom of the rod duct on the western side is finished with pebbles collected from Laxey Beach.
The rod duct is a series of 32 arches with a circular portal between each pair. In September 1930, a flash flood swept down the valley and washed away several arches, leaving the rod hanging in mid-air.
The oscillating rod, with a total length of 210 yards (192 metres), was made of 17 separate oak timbers joined together by iron plates. Like all of the wheel’s wooden parts, the timbers were fashioned by local craftsmen.
Moving Up the Valley
A short hike up the valley from the wheel is the engine shaft. This shaft was 247 fathoms (about 452 metres or 1,483 feet) deep and housed 5 pumps at 50 fathom intervals.
The lowest pump forced water up to the next highest pump and so on until, eventually; the topmost pump discharged the water into the Laxey River. The water raised from the mine carried a high concentration of toxic metals, including lead, and the river became badly polluted.
The T-rocker was located at the mouth of the engine shaft. Named for its shape, the T-rocker was rocked back and forth on its stationary foot by the horizontal oscillating rod and pulled a vertical rod up and down in the engine shaft.
Robert Casement designed the machine house as a more powerful and economic replacement for the earlier steam-powered engine house. Like the wheel, the machine house’s turbine engine was driven by water.
A tramway carrying ore from the mine ran through a clearing, then a tunnel, passing the ‘deads’, where waste ore was deposited, eventually arriving at the washing floors, 570 metres southeast of the Laxey Wheel, where the ore was sorted and dressed.
Glen Mooar Valley and the Washing Floors
During the 19th century, the Glen Mooar Valley was a hive of industry, and waterwheels weren’t uncommon in the area. They tell us a lot about 19th century attitudes to the environment.
To the Victorians, nature was to be conquered, and this was an age of heroic civil engineering projects.
A few examples: the London sewer system, with over 1,000 miles of subterranean conduits; the tunnels, bridges, and viaducts of the Great Western Railway; and the Caledonian and Manchester Ship Canals.
Separation of waste stone from precious ores took place on the washing floors, the site presently occupied by the Valley Gardens. Workers there—as many as 300 during the mine’s peak years—included women, young boys, and men too old or infirm for underground work.
A Dangerous Profession
Each shift at the Laxey mine began with the slow descent by ladders into the shafts. Anything could happen down below. Between 1831 and 1926, Manx newspapers reported 36 deaths in the mines.
Gunpowder explosions were a common cause of accidents—in most cases the powder exploded prematurely while being packed into drill holes. Some miners were asphyxiated by carbon dioxide; some fell down shafts and into pits, while others were killed by falling rocks or timber.
Some mine workers were employed in the ‘fixing of timber’. Laxey mine shafts were considered reasonably sound and safe, but some use of wooden ‘pit props’ was necessary.
The biggest threat to the safety of the miners was ‘blackdamp’—carbon dioxide gathered at the bottom of the shafts. The first sign of blackdamp was a flickering candle, which would alert miners that oxygen levels were running low.
Mined ore was transported in iron box wagons drawn on rails by horses. A single horse could pull 2 wagons, each weighing about 2½ tonnes (2,500 Kilograms) when fully loaded.